Eleanor Larrison, class of 1882 (left), wrote to her friend Cora while she was at Smith, both about her love for Cora and her love for a fellow Smith student, Helen. The letters are refreshingly free of shame or secrecy, as Eleanor saw her feelings as “God-given.”
Eleanor’s letters to Cora perfectly demonstrate the practice of romantic friendships in the late 1800s. Eleanor clearly saw Cora as a partner, and viewed them in some kind of relationship, but not as we understand relationships today. Cora married during their correspondence, and the one time Eleanor mentions her husband she says simply, “I give my love to ‘Teddy.’ I much love him too, since he is yours.” (Letter 10, April 28, 1881)
Here, Eleanor describes the nature of her and Cora’s relationship:
Now I feel capable of a deeper heartier love to all my friends, and I have often thought of late that I would like to be with you now, to show you how much more loving I am. O thank god for love! … Yes, I have many friends, but no one like Cora. I do not tell them the same things, I do not have toward them the same sort of feeling. And yet I am grateful and glad for all love….I am naturally exclusive- would like to give all of myself to a chosen few..but yet, I am so glad there was a Beloved Desciple [sic]- and that it is written ‘Now Jesus loved Mary, and Martha, and their brother.’
-Eleanor Larrison to Cora, October 18, 1881. Sophia Smith Collection, Eleanor Larrison papers, box 1397, letter 13.
In another letter to Cora, whose health was poor during their correspondence, Eleanor compares her relationship to Cora with her relationship to Helen:
Cora, what a comfort you are to me! To me, our friendship defies time and space, bodily weakness and suffering on your part, and a busy life making its never-ending demands on me. I fly to the thought of your faithful love as a refuge when cares oppress, and it contributes to make up the happiness of my bright hours. There is such a sense of rest in the thought of this friendship of ours. I have no jealous pangs. I know you love me; your loving sympathy surrounds me like the atmosphere. And I know I love you. I do not have to anxiously question myself about it.
I am led to think of this by the unrest which Helen causes me so often. I know but too well how much I love her….I did not seek or choose that it should be so. It came from God- and in His own exuding excellent way- a way which seems to the world blinded soul like chance. I came very gradually to love her as well….I could not help myself, so I know that it was sent to me. But I cannot feel sure of her….I find in her something of the same sort of charm that some women find in men. She is ‘manly, as a woman may be womanly’- passionately strong. I never would choose to make advances to her, but am unspeakably happy when she smooths my cheek with her hand, or lays it on my head, looking down at me with the dewy light of her dark grey eyes, and calls me by one of her many names for me….But I cannot be sure, you see. I have not known her long enough, I have not tested and tried her love….As much better is a long tried friendship where both parties have arrived at the love which if not yet perfect, is yet near enough it to cast out fear, as the settled steadfast love of its hearts on their golden wedding day is better than the jealous pangs, the doubts and fears, of the lover in the days of early courtship.
-Eleanor Larrison to Cora, September 17, 1881. Sophia Smith Collection, Eleanor Larrison papers, box 1397, letter 12.